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UIC TA Handbook - Communication in the Multicultural Classroom

By Swinder Jheeta

Former Academic Trainer, Instructional Development Services
University of California, Irvine


Contrast Values Between Low- and High-Context Cultures

According to E.T. Hall (1981), all communication (verbal as well as nonverbal) is contextually bound. What we pay attention to or do not attend to is largely a matter of cultural context. Cultures act as "selective screens" and can be divided into categories, low- and high-context. In low­ context cultures, the majority of the information is explicitly communicated in the verbal message. In high-context cultures the information is embedded in the context of the relationship. High- and low-context cultures also differ in their definition of social and power hierarchies, relationships, work ethics, business practices, and also in time management. Examples of low-context cultures include: Scandinavian, German, Swiss and North America. In contrast, Mediterranean, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Latin American cultures appear on the high end of the continuum. High- and low­ context cultures differ in ways which may create conflict when people from different cultures interact. The following list contrasts the values between high- and low- context cultures.

Low-Context - Individualistic

High-Context - Collective

Mastery over Nature

Harmony with Nature

Personal Control over the Environment Doing




Future Orientation

Past I Present Orientation



Time Dominates

Focus on Relationships

Human Equality

Hierarchy I Rank I Status




Birthright Inheritance

Individualism I Privacy

Group Welfare






Indirectness I Ritual





In your classes there will be students who hold values similar to yours, some who hold values significantly different from yours, and others who share some of each. How you deal with these differences will depend upon your teaching skills and upon your willingness to question the absoluteness of your own values, attitudes and beliefs.

Dominant Style of Communication

Knowledge of high- and low-context cultures is important to understanding how culture shapes values, attitudes, and beliefs and how it can influence one's style of communication. The dominant style of communication in the American context has the following characteristics:

  1. A majority of the verbal information is explicitly communicated. For example, an apology must be clearly articulated, whereas in a high-context culture the same message can be communicated through a variety of nonverbal gestures such as a smile, sigh, shrug, or frown.
  2. Directness, openness, and honesty are valued, as is freedom of emotional expression. Spontaneity and casualness characterize informal relationships. Within this context, successful communication requires an understanding of the explicit and implicit norms of behavior. One of the implicit norms of behavior is that there is an accept­ able physical distance to maintain when interacting with another person. The distance varies according to the kind of relationship and degree of familiarity with the individual.
  3. Questioning and challenging authority are both acceptable and encouraged. Questioning the teacher and authority figures suggests one has personal power and can help bring about change. Independence, self-determination, and personal power are highly valued.
  4. Nonverbal communication such as posture, gestures, and facial expressions communicate a wealth of information. For example, eye contact is perceived to be important in validating recognition and communicating interest. It is also perceived as assertive and suggests that one has nothing to hide.
  5. In the North American context, time is considered a valuable commodity of great importance. Being on time is valued and tardiness is considered disrespectful.

These are some general characteristics of the American dominant style of communication. It is important to note that within all cultures there is much room for individual variation. It is best to observe and check your perceptions before assuming what certain behaviors mean and what the message is intended to communicate.

Points to consider when teaching in a cross-cultural context

Listen to what the student is communicating, not to what is going on in your head. The "psychological noise" all of us experience daily includes such things as preoccupation with other things, self-concept, past experience, stereotypes, and attitudes toward others.

Try to use descriptive terms such as "creative," "innovative," or "commendable" rather than those expressing approval or disapproval--"good," "that's interesting," or "that's fine."

Try to move in the direction of substituting more precise words for vague ones. Be specific and use examples. Instead of writing "awkward," "needs improving," or "expand," comment on what the student has already done well and provide specific examples on how to improve their work.

Admit your own insecurities in the face of an unknown quantity. Accept the fact that we all make mistakes. Take time to learn more about your students and the various cultural groups they represent.

Recognize the students' anxieties and their need to preserve their cultural identity. Also question the absoluteness of your values and premises. Be sensitive, supportive, and at the same time recognize your own limitations.

Examine your habitual behaviors for their communication content. Check to see if you make eye contact with all the students and whether you call upon them equally or only upon a select few.

Become more alert to the ways in which cultural conditioning shapes your value judgements and influences your behavior. Be cognizant of your own stereotypes and prejudices. Be aware of your perceptions of your students.

Check your perceptions before you make any interpretations about the behavior of others. For example, a smile can mean many things, such as "I am happy," "I am sorry," or "I am nervous." A nod can mean "I agree," "I accept," or "I respect your authority and opinion."

Listen to what is not being said. Pay attention to the non­verbal behaviors in the classroom. What are the students communicating through their silence? Don't assume that everyone understands. Check it out. For example: "I am noticing a lot of blank stares; am I going too fast?" Or have the students write a brief summary of the material you have just presented.

Make your expectations explicit so that everyone knows what the rules are. At the beginning of the class, generate a list of rules (norms) which would include, for example, "Start on time"; "Do original work"; "Take responsibility for your own learning"; "Participate freely"; "Do ask questions if you don't understand something." Review your criteria for evaluation.

Finally, become more suspicious of your own "wisdom." Your students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and bring with them a wealth of information. Remain open to learning from them and they will teach you well.


Kohls, LR. (1984). The values Americans live by. Washington, D.C.: Meridian House International.

Hall, E.T. (1981). Beyond culture. Garden City, NJ.: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Copyright permission granted from: Teaching guide for new and experienced TAs, 1994-1995: University of California, Irvine.

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